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Friday, December 21, 2012

ICE Buys NYSE: Profiting from the Rules

“Tell me what the rules are, and I’ll make money with them.” This statement, made by Jeffrey Sprecher of Intercontinental Exchange, captures well the attitude that business practitioners should have toward government regulation in a republic. That is to say, businesses should be regulation-takers rather than makers. For the regulatees to make regulation to which they themselves would be subject is an oxymoron, or contradiction in terms. At the very least, it involves a conflict of interest. At the macro level, business as “regulation-maker” effectively turns a democracy into a plutocracy. Accordingly, the strategic use of regulation should pertain to the use side, rather than the regulating side. Crafting regulations—essentially dictating them to legislators or regulators—in order to make money from them takes the strategic use of regulation too far.
                                                                                                        Jeffrey Sprecher of ICE.  Making money playing by the rules.  (nypost)
Sprecher began by working at electric companies. He picked up on the need of those companies to hedge energy contracts so he bought a small exchange and built it up around derivative trading. Eventually, he did away with the exchange’s trading floor—preferring 24 hour computer trading. In 2010, the passage of the Dodd-Frank Act of financial reform requires that derivative trading be done through a clearinghouse. Sprecher’s company stood in a position to take advantage of the new rule. In fact, the intent of the new regulation being that regulators could have a better idea of the volume of derivatives “out there,” Sprecher created a derivatives database in his company. In other words, he anticipated in a way that meant more profits, and he did so without trying to manipulate legislators or regulators with a huge lobbying effort. Rather, he anticipated weaknesses in the market and devised company-based solutions that would be profitable. It is no surprise that the Dodd-Frank Act essentially adopted his business model regarding derivatives—effectively forcing it on the industry as a whole.
In fact, observing the heightened scrutiny of swap contracts under Dodd-Frank, Sprecher decided to convert them to futures contracts. Here again, profit was also in the mix. “The reality is that there are incentives to convert swaps into futures, where there’s less competition,” according to Richard McVey of MarketAxess. “There’s no requirement for [Sprecher’s company] to open [its] futures clearinghouse to other exchanges.” This restriction of competition to increase profit is ironic for ICE because in late 2012 came the announcement that the company would purchase the New York Stock Exchange, which had capitalized on monopolizing the trades of its members. Ironically, Sprecher’s actions had undercut this monopolization and here he was exacting his own version in turning “insurance” swaps into garden-variety futures contracts. Business skill can be regarded as the art of knowing when to ride a wave—and which wave to ride.
It should be noted that both the computer-trading and derivative-trading trends furthered by Sprecher’s very company enabled it to buy the vaunted New York Stock Exchange for $8.2 billion rather than something much higher. According to the New York Times in late 2012, the “transformation of the New York Stock Exchange from its position at the apex of the world financial system to an asset to be bought and sold like any other—and one that is not deemed to be worth as much as it would be if it traded more modern derivative securities rather than old-fashioned stocks—has been going on for decades, but has accelerated in recent years.” Essentially, Sprecher took advantage of this trend by making the purchase, and he would capitalize on owning the “temple of commerce” through intra-company synergies even while committing to keep the NYSE floor up and running.
In short, business acumen has no need of being sidetracked into manipulating lawmakers and regulators into formulating rules favorable to one’s particular company. The strategic use of regulation is most profitably accomplished over the long run on the use side. Take the rules as given and make money with them. This is entirely consistent with business in a viable republic. An implication of this thesis is that it’s the bad—both in terms of business intuition and moral disapprobation concerning manipulating public policy for private gain—manager who represents the plutocric threat to a republic.  The business practitioners knocking on Congressional doors are not the brightest guys in the room as regards innate business skill, and they are not the most forthright concerning getting what they want, whether by money or even information. Unfortunately, turning opportunities into profit is instinctive only for some practitioners, while it is forced or contrived in many others, who therefore feel compelled to circumnavigate business by pressuring public officials. It is significant—and telling—that ICE did not have a substantial lobbying presence in Washington, as Sprecher and his subordinates undoubtedly “kept to the knitting,” being good at it, and thus they did well in profiting from gaps in the market and the related regulatory changes.


Ben Protess and Nathaniel Popper, “Exchange Sale Reflects New Realities of Trading,” The New York Times, December 21, 2012.

Floyd Norris, “A Temple of Commerce that Failedto Keep Up with Change,” The New York Times, December 21, 2012.

Michael J.de la Merced, “At the Big Board, Seeking Rejuvenation in Consolidation,” The New York Times, December 21, 2012.